A journal of narrative writing.
Smokey's Mountain

The racket never stops. Hammers pound, electric saws buzz, nail guns fire like Uzis. From daybreak till dawn engines hum; sheetrock, lumber and tile roar when unloaded from the back of trucks. Big yellow bulldozers snap brush and pummel earth, then rest on heaping mounds of dirt for everyone to see. Where there was only heard the tinkling brook, screaming golden eagle and the chugging of the steam-engine on the Big Trees railroad, now comes the clamor of construction.  This section of the Santa Cruz Mountains is getting raped by Silicon Valley's insatiable lust and greed. 

I've seen such "development" before; it pushed me up the coast from San Diego to LA to Ventura and now here. I've been mobile for years, just carrying around a few meager belongings wherever I go. It's a simple existence; I mostly panhandle to get by, but sometimes I answer job flyers and paint houses, dig ditches, clear trimmings and the like. But when "civilization" creeps in too closely, I pack up my things and move on. That's why the two-story, three-car garage monoliths sprouting up along the ridgeline piss me off, why I lose my head some times. I'm fucking tired of moving; and since I've been here for years now, I consider this coastal forest my home as much as anyone's.

The morning's a fog in a couple of ways. Damp mist has saturated the ground circling the long-abandoned lime kiln fortress where I sleep, and only a few sections of light break through chinks in the redwood and fir canopy that shelters the area here by the creek. I roll over onto a pine cone or rock, and roll back again. I expect to somehow hear the racket from the ridges beyond, but really, it takes a careful listen to do so from down here, almost five miles away from the nearest construction site. That's one of the perks of squatting in a state forest. 

My head is foggy, too, due to my undying love for the bottle. I nearly finished two of the ones Rodrigo gave me yesterday. He's a vineyard hand I've befriended; we've worked side by side on occasion, though he's a full-timer while I'm only good for a few days a month—if that. The winery takes up hundreds of acres near the latest development and I'm hoping they produce enough grape to avoid the temptation of selling the property, which I'm sure is escalating in value this very minute. These things concern me, but I don't dwell on them, not when I'm already feeling a little off-kilter from the vino. I begin to stretch my legs within the confining limits of my mummy bag. It's Saturday, I realize; I manage a smile. The day so far is calm and peaceful. The vinyl tarp above my head has yet to flutter. 

I shimmy from my sleeping bag into a dirty pair of jeans, long-sleeve t-shirt and tattered jacket with electrician's tape covering the holes where the down insulation tries to poke through. The corners of my mouth are parched and my taste buds have uncovered something like battery acid, so I head for a large plastic container of water I'd filtered recently from the creek.  I'm so desperate for the stuff that I gulp it down like I've just run a marathon. Briefly revived, I scan the confines of my humble quarters, the kiln which more than a century ago was fired up to extract the lime used in mortar and whitewash to build the infrastructure of the West Coast. In the kiln's heyday, wide swaths of the hillside were exposed as many of the surrounding redwoods and Douglas firs were cut down to fuel the kilns. Luckily, most have since regained their heights. 

I'm strumming my lower lip when inspiration strikes: A hike will be my project for the day. A long one that sweats every last toxin out the pores. 

After throwing an orange, some snack food, and a few water bottles into my daypack, I set off by hopscotching a few boulders across the creek. I follow a deer trail I've been using recently that climbs up and over a few ridges and ultimately to a rock outcropping with panoramic views of the Pacific. The way I'm feeling, though, the odds are mighty slim of reaching that destination today.

It's not long before I pause, hands on hips, panting. More water's what I need, and I can't stop drinking the stuff. Then I snap a bite of breakfast bar off in my teeth, and—head cocked back—see a red-tailed hawk's nest halfway up a redwood.  It triggers memories of why I'm out here, why I'm a mountain man. It triggers Christa Hannigan.

 When we were ten, Christa inherited a tree fort from her older brother who'd gone back east for boarding school. She invited me over to check it out; it was in a valley oak, a towering tree with an impressive network of limbs. I was awed by the aerial view, and it became an almost daily meeting place. We had our first kiss there, eyes closed, the sound of scurrying squirrels and dropping acorns as our lips met.  

My devotion to wandering—and protecting (by whatever means necessary)—these woods can be traced to that tree fort. Every day I'm traversing some trail or another.  Right now I'm really slogging it, especially with the fog lifting, the temperature warming fast. I tie my jacket around my waist before finishing off the first bottle of water. Afterward, I feel the urge to pee. I wander towards a fir tree off the beaten path, to give the blacktail deer their due respect (we have a pact: I don't piss on their trail; they don't shit down by the creek). As I start to drain the lizard, I hear a rustling sound and notice a long shadow making its way behind the far side of the tree. Out of curiosity, I step toward the noise and steady my aim accordingly. I expect a raccoon or some such animal to pop out the other side, but the creature that does is the last thing I'm expecting, and my pee cuts off mid-stream.

"Don't hurt me…"

It's a tow-headed girl about belt-high, wearing a pink velour jacket, designer blue jeans and snow white tennis shoes spotted with mud.  Her hair is tied back in a ponytail and she looks scared and sheepish as she slowly backs away down the hill nearly into a bramble of huckleberry. It takes me a moment to realize I'm still holding my dick, but I quickly tuck it back in my pants and zip up, clearing my throat to distract her.  

"Stop, it's okay," I say.  "Are you with someone?"

She's frozen in her tracks, staring me in the face without answering. Her eyes tear and her lips quiver.  I want to set her at ease, but am lightheaded, reminded my hangover isn't going away anytime soon. 

"What are you doing out here?," I ask gently in a tone I usually reserve for a child half her age since she's understandably freaked. I'm sure my long, stringy hair and funky beard aren't helping the situation. I'm known to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Russian mystic Rasputin, crossed with a little Jamaican Irie.  It's not a look that people, especially kids, find warm and comforting. So I step with caution as I close the distance between us. "Are you okay?"

"I'm lost."  

"Yeah," I answer, crouched now so we're looking each other eye-to-eye. "I kinda figured that."

She's still essentially paralyzed, arms diagonally across her chest as if straitjacketed. All I can think to do is mutter, "I'm Smokey," and extend my hairy-knuckled, calloused hand in polite greeting.

"Smokey?" she asks, puzzled, right hand still clenched to her left shoulder blade.

"Yeah," I say, foregoing the handshake. "Like the bear."

"Why is your name Smokey?"

I want to tell her it's because Clarence, my given name, just doesn't cut it. Or because I smoke so much reefer; or because my dark hair is now shading a light hue of gray. Instead I tell her the truth. "'Cause I pretty much smell like campfire smoke wherever I go. The scent lingers in my clothes. Here, take a whiff..."

To my surprise she does just that.  She pulls a sleeve from the jacket I'd tied around my waist, and inhales like it was her last breath.  Then she smiles and says, "You're right. It does."

I open another water bottle and hand it to her. She drinks it halfway down.

"And what's your name?"

"Heather," she says, nearly breathless from her intake of H2O. 

"Heather what?"

"Heather McAuliffe."

The name's instantly familiar, but I can't seem to figure out why.  Then it hits me. "Heather, do you live in that really big home that sits at the top of mountain?  The one at the end of Crystal Creek Road?"


Shit! She's the daughter of the kingpin developer who built his own three-story monstrosity here. She lives there. Rodrigo and the boys refer to it as Dracula's Castle.  I've done a few things to her home, to her property, small measures in my attempts to even the score around here. And now that I know she's the developer's kid, I shake my head in disgust and am temped to leave her to the fates of the wild.

But, really, I'd never do that. I simply display my disgust for her father with a grunt and a shrug; realizing that if I don't get her back soon her father will probably send for the cavalry and have everyone and their mother ransacking and trampling every square inch of my beloved woods in an effort to find her. So I begin an ascent through forest ferns and up the hill. When I look back over my shoulder I see she's yet to budge. "Well, come on Heather. We gotta get you back, right?"

She nods and follows me up the trail, a muddied portion because of the recent rains. "How'd you get so lost?" I ask her as we've soon stopped to rest.  "You're a long way from home."

"My brother said he was going out to explore, and I came out to find him. I tried to catch up but got lost."

"Man, you've probably been heading down the mountainside for two hours," I tell her. It's human nature to head downhill under such circumstances; even the hopelessly lost look for the easy way out.

"Do you like living here?" I ask as we again start to hike.  "Must be nice in that big house of yours."

"It is, but sometimes…"

"Sometimes what?"

"Sometimes I get scared."

I let her catch up and can see she's troubled about something.

"What's the matter, Heather?  What do you get scared about?"

"My dad says to keep my eyes open. My dad says to watch out. People have broken things. They've stolen stuff."

I feign a look of concern. "Don't worry; things aren't that bad. You'll be safe around here."  I should know.

"What about Spooky?," she asks as we start walking again.


"Our dog."

"Why, what's the matter with him?," I ask, feeling a pang of dread.

"He got real sick, so they had to pump his stomach," she says—nearly breathless, so we pause for a rest. "My dad said there was something fishy going on."

I wipe the sweat from my brow. "What do you have, a Labrador or retriever?"

"No, Spooky's a beagle."

Suddenly I'm a bit nauseous from the thought of it all. It wasn't like me to line snail poison around a dog bowl. I was drinking too much back then, depressed.

"He's okay now, though, right?"

"Uh huh," she says.

Towards the end of high school Christa and I were pretty serious. We graduated from kisses in the tree fort to increasingly less awkward moves in the back seat of the family car or between the sheets at the summer beach house. And, thanks to our shared concern for the great outdoors, we participated in environmental protests together, always linked with one's hand in the other's pocket or belt loop; no riot police could ever separate us. We were followers of Edward Abbey and his monkey wrench manifesto, though we drew the line at spiking trees—it wasn't cool to risk maiming those simply doing their jobs.  Anyway, my folks didn't take too kindly to our relationship or such progressive ways—my pop said I was blinded by Christa's "snatch"—but my activism remained steady, even when Christa hightailed it to the Rockies for art school and I was left with the JC and an aborted stint as a park ranger.